Although the vast majority of farm operators in the United States are men—70% of operators, 87% of principal operators as reported in the 2012 Census of Agriculture—that is not the case elsewhere in the world. Within the developing world, women make up about 43% of the agricultural labor force, with the share approaching 50% in Southeastern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In most of those countries, women farmers have less access to improved inputs, such as seeds, equipment and fertilizer, and to information about good farming practices than do their male counterparts. The result is that average yields that are 20% to 30% lower. For a variety of reasons, there needs to be a sustained effort to reduce that gap.
One proven way to address this matter is by improving girls’ access to education. The United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) first began to operate school feeding projects in developing countries in 1980. Although the U.S. government previously had provided resources for school feeding under other programs, in the 2002 farm bill Congress established the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program to provide funds dedicated to this effort.
Since established, the USDA-run program has funded school feeding projects in 40 countries, helping more than 28 million children and their families. One of the explicit goals of school feeding programs is to provide incentives for girls in poor families to be sent to school with the same frequency as their brothers. Students are fed during the school day and provided take-home rations. The poorest families will be less prone to hold their daughters out of school because they are helping to bring in food. Progress has been made across the developing world in recent years, but it is estimated there are still 3.6 million more girls not in school than boys.
We know the feeding approach generates positive results. In 32 African countries in 2008, attendance for girls rose twice as fast in schools with a WFP school feeding program than in schools without such a program. A 2012 World Bank study in Burkino Faso, Uganda and Laos found that school feeding programs led to increased enrollment of girls in all three countries. The study also provided evidence of improved educational outcomes, such as a higher percentage of students in Burkino Faso being able to answer arithmetic questions correctly after a school feeding program was initiated. In Uganda, access to school feeding helped reduce the share of children forced to repeat a grade due to poor performance.
Both the McGovern-Dole program and the broader WFP effort have goals of encouraging governments in recipient countries to eventually take over full responsibility for the school feeding programs. So far, 37 developing countries now operate their own school feeding programs without external financial support, have in effect “graduated” from WFP and/or U.S. sponsorship.
The more girls in these countries who gain access to school feeding programs and who stay in school, the more likely they are to get married later, have fewer children, and have more opportunities to earn income. For those in the agricultural sector, their education will enhance their ability to get access to the inputs, land and knowledge they need to farm. A new World Bank report estimates that if women farmers were to have the same access to resources as their male counterparts, between 100 million and 150 million fewer people would go hungry worldwide. That is a worthwhile goal to pursue.